After Colorado and Washington state voters approved recreational marijuana use in 2012, cannabis advocates needed another six years to win legalization battles in eight additional states. But in 2019 alone, at least eight states, including New Jersey, seem ready to pass laws permitting recreational pot. In Pennsylvania, legislators recently have introduced two separate legalization bills.
Driving the surge are claims that marijuana is not only harmless, it’s therapeutic, and that legalizing pot will end the unjust imprisonment of casual users, especially in minority communities. It’s an enticing but misleading narrative.
As far back as the 1970s, reports in such scientific journals as the International Journal of the Addictions (now Substance Use & Misuse) and the Archives of General Psychiatry noted associations between pot use and mental illness. One Swedish physician embarked on a thorough study of nearly 50,000 Swedish military draftees, all surveyed about their drug use, which found that those admitting to using pot frequently as teens were six times more likely to develop schizophrenia than non-pot smokers. His 1987 paper in the Lancet spurred further work.
A 2004 review of studies on marijuana use published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology reported that regular users got into more in motor vehicle accidents than nonusers and were more likely to develop schizophrenia. Some studies, the review found, also suggested a link between marijuana use and depression.
So concerned is the National Academy of Medicine that in 2017 it produced an exhaustive a 487-page report, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” The former head of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, described the report’s conclusions about pot as, “way too little known; potential benefits unproven, some serious harms definite, many serious risks possible.”
Advocates have tried to turn legalization into a social justice cause, arguing that enforcing current pot laws hurts minority communities. Current marijuana laws, the NAACP argued in 2012, result “in a disproportionate number of African Americans and other people of color being introduced into the criminal justice system.”
But the NAACP suggests a big problem — mass incarceration for pot possession — that doesn’t exist. As local governments have reduced penalties for simple marijuana use, most of those jailed for drug-related charges are dealers. Only about 1 percent of federal prisoners are behind bars on simple possession charges, and fewer than 4 percent of state prisoners are in for possession, and often of more serious substances than marijuana, moreover.
Ironically, minority-community concerns are leading some local leaders to push back against legalization. The head of New Jersey’s black legislative caucus, Democratic Sen. Ron Rice, a former Newark police officer, opposes a bill scheduled for a vote next week in Trenton to legalize marijuana. He argues that in states with legal pot, many suburban, largely white communities have voted to ban marijuana stores, so that the shops tend to open in cities, with their higher minority populations. Though Californians approved legalized pot, for example, only 89 of 482 communities allow sales, including big cities Los Angeles and Oakland. In Colorado, about 70 percent of the state’s municipalities have banned pot shops.
One fear of community leaders is a spike in crime. A 2013 paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that students who used marijuana were three times more likely to be physically aggressive as those who did not. A 2016 study published in Psychological Medicine of English youth found that those who used marijuana regularly were five times more likely to be aggressive.
Since 2012, when it legalized recreational pot, Colorado has seen violent crime rise by 20 percent, compared with a decrease of about 1 percent nationally over the same period. In Alaska, since legalization in 2014, violent crime is up 30 percent, while it has jumped 21 percent in Oregon.
Nor has legalization ended the black market. The cost that government imposes on marijuana through taxes and regulations makes legal pot pricier than its illegal counterpart, which continues to thrive. “Colorado’s black market has actually exploded after commercialization,” former U.S. attorney for Colorado, Bob Troyer, wrote in a September Denver Post op-ed.
As an alternative to legalization, Sen. Rice and Sen. Bob Singer, a Republican representing suburban Jersey Shore communities, have proposed a decriminalization bill that would end prosecution for simple possession of marijuana but wouldn’t create an industry devoted to marketing and retailing products. But because the bill doesn’t create a legal product that New Jersey can tax, it has failed to find backing in cash-strapped Trenton.
Recently, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chief executive of a company that employs nearly 20,000 people, said that even as America struggles with an epidemic of drug use and overdosing, it is “trying to legalize another addictive narcotic, which is perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done.” Most Americans don’t yet agree, but they need to look harder at the evidence.